Book Review: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said once when accused of playing both sides of an issue. It’s good to see a politician with a self deprecating since of humor.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame and the writers of The Office have some hysterical views on corporate politics. They poke fun at the corporate incompetence and the silly politics to which many in the business world can relate.

Et tu, Brute?

Unfortunately there’s very little funny that’s to those who find themselves in a back-stabbing, alliance-building, sell-your-own-mother-if-it-wins-points-with-the-boss world of office politics.

As a consultant, I’ve worked with thousands of people at all levels of an organization and across most every industry. I’ve seen corporate politics in action. I’ve witnessed some of its brutality and the carnage it leaves in its wake. It’s painful to watch someone trample another as he protects his own little fiefdom.

Fortunately as an “outsider”, I’m seldom the target of such attacks. Nevertheless, I thought it would be good to do a bit of research into the topic. So, I turned to the grand daddy of all books on politics: Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Applying Princely Advice To Office Politics

Much like Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, The Prince is considered by many to be a timeless classic that’s as applicable today in business as it was to governance in the period that it was originally written. When read with a discerning eye, it’s chock full of savvy advice for leaders.

For example, when you notice a subtle, slowly escalating issue, Machiavelli advocates confronting the issue sooner rather than later. There’s no sense in ignoring the issue and allowing it to gain momentum.

Therefore, the Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head…

Likewise, Machiavelli proposes that the wise Prince will seek counsel from those around him albeit under very restricted conditions.

The only way for a prince to guard himself from flattering adulation is to make it understood that he will not be offended if he is told the truth.

and,

…this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice…

A warning against complacency is also made.

Princes who give more thought to luxury than to arms often lose their principality.  In fact, the quickest way to lose a principality is to neglect the art of war, and the best way of acquiring one is to be a master in this art.

Take Some Advice With A Grain Of Salt

Not all advice proffered by Machiavelli is beneficial in my opinion and it should be measured against your own moral compass.

At times, Machiavelli’s advice can be calculating and callous. He seems to be of the opinion that the ends justifies the means no matter the cost. For example, when assuming power over a principality,

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

Additionally according to The Prince, we should not grow colleagues and direct reports.

From this a general rule is drawn which never or rarely fails: that he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.

In Summary

I’m glad to have read The Prince. It’s a classic in every sense of the word. I must say, though, that it’s not an easy read. The sentence structures used can be rather complex at times even though the tone is fairly conversational.

Even some 500 years after its writing, it has some good insights into politics. Just being aware of these issues is good, even if you choose not to follow them.

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5 Responses to Book Review: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

  1. Danae says:

    Bookmarked, I really like your site! 🙂

  2. retracement says:

    Joe, I love “The Prince” and Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” though I still have Machiavelli’s “Art of War” still to go through, though I’ve been told that The Prince is by far the better work.
    Another one for you to check out (if you haven’t already) is “The Book of Five Rings” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Five_Rings although it is a little dry and even harder to digest than The Prince at times.

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